Nancy Pelosi puts her stamp on the House
Nancy Pelosi is a master tactician and the most powerful speaker in a half century. Behind her personal brand of power politics – and whether she will still be speaker after the midterm elections.
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It's criticism she has heard throughout her public life, but, like many besieged politicians, she seems to use it as fuel. "My friends, they would call me: 'Can you believe what they said?' " she says in an interview. "I said: 'Why are you calling me? Are you calling me to waste my time? If you don't like what they're saying, recruit volunteers, raise money, go door to door....' "Skip to next paragraph
Pelosi isn't a Rhodes Scholar like Speaker Carl Albert (D) of Oklahoma (1971-76). She doesn't turn out rapid-fire policy ideas like Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia (1995-98). Nor does she see herself as a "coach" like Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois (1999-2006). On camera, she often appears awkward or stilted, especially under fire. (Faced with criticism that she knew about the Bush-era "torture" of 9/11 detainees and did nothing, she fell back on reading a statement. Pressed for clarification, she looked down and simply read it again.) But for raw organizational skills – preparation, networking, political instinct, and dogged persistence – Pelosi is in a class by herself.
"Nancy Pelosi has an exceptional political mind. She is constantly calculating the political implications of every circumstance that she encounters and what needs to happen," says Ronald Peters, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma who has interviewed every speaker since John McCormack (D) of Massachusetts (1961-70). "Few speakers come close to her in terms of constant organizational effort."
In a town that typically sorts people as insiders or outsiders, Pelosi is an unusual mixture of both. Most speakers historically excelled at the insider game: building up favors and relationships with colleagues, while plotting ways to move up the party ranks. Once established as speaker, they had a base to expand national contacts and outreach. By contrast, Pelosi – a lifelong Democratic fundraiser – began her freshman year in the House with her own network of national donors. Over time, she tapped these contacts to move votes on the floor.
The key to Pelosi's success is her drive and mastery of detail – the working knowledge she has of who her members are, what their districts need, and who on the outside can be mobilized to affect their votes. In short, she knows the critical "back door" to members.
It's a skill set that no previous speaker had to the same extent, because none spent the time that she has working contacts on the outside. Since entering leadership in 2002, Pelosi has raised $162 million for Democratic candidates. It's an unthinkable sum for previous speakers and shows the increasing importance of vast war chests to win and hold majorities in bitterly partisan times. With a few calls or a well-timed fundraiser, she can sweeten a tough vote or pressure a member considering an unhelpful one.
Call it the art of political cover. In an era of pure partisan gridlock, no one is doing it better.
PELOSI LEARNED THE FINE ART of sustaining political support from her earliest years in a leading political family in Baltimore. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was serving in the US House of Representatives when she was born. He was the mayor of Baltimore from when she entered first grade until she went away to Trinity College in Washington, D.C. Her brother, Thomas D'Alesandro III, was mayor of Baltimore from 1967 to 1971.